PYEONGCHANG, South Korea – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sat just feet apart during Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony but did not interact – in keeping with Pence’s determined effort to turn a cold shoulder to what he’s called North Korea’s “propaganda” around the games.
Pence, who led the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremonies, was seated between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Nam, North Korea’s 90-year-old nominal head of state, seated a row behind.
The vice president came to Pyeongchang to cheer on American athletes. But he said he also wanted to warn the world against falling for the glossy image of the two Koreas who marched in the opening ceremony under one flag.
After meetings with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Pence said there should be no consideration of using the Games as an opening for substantive talks with the North until its nuclear program is up for negotiations.
Pence said the U.S. would “demand at the outset of any new dialogue or negotiations that the Kim regime put denuclearization on the table and take concrete steps with the world community to dismantle, permanently and irreversibly, their nuclear and ballistic missile programs.”
“Then and only then will the world community consider negotiating and making changes in the sanctions regime that’s placed on them today,” he added.
At a VIP reception before the opening ceremony, Pence and Kim Yong Nam were in the same room, according to Jarrod Agen, his deputy chief of staff, but Pence “did not come across the North Korean delegation” at the event.
Eager to put a reality check on the thaw in relations between the Koreas in advance of the Games, Pence met with North Korean defectors Friday and paid respects at the Cheonan Memorial in Pyeongtaek, which honors the 46 South Korean sailors killed in a 2010 torpedo attack blamed on the North.
During his meeting with the four defectors, including some who had been tortured and abused by the North, Pence warned that the world would see “a charm offensive by North Korea” on Friday. “But today we thought it was important to make sure the truth is told.”
“As these people and their lives testify, it is a regime that imprisons, and tortures, and impoverishes its citizens,” he added.
Pence avoided public criticism of Moon, congratulating South Korea on hosting the Olympics and pledging continued support in addressing the North’s nuclear threat. But privately, officials said, Pence expressed concern to Moon about his more conciliatory tone toward North Korea.
“President Moon and President Trump are completely aligned in their objective for a nuclear free Korean Peninsula,” Pence said. But the two leaders appear to differ on the path to get there.
Moon has embraced the Games as an opportunity for a thaw in tensions, calling them “Olympic Games of peace.” The opening ceremony will be attended by the North Korean leader’s sister and other senior officials. And women’s ice hockey players from both Koreas will compete as one team.
As he met with Pence on Thursday, Moon added his hope that it becomes “a venue that leads to dialogue for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
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